LEGO Bricks and the Dirty Truth About Recycling

News & Politics

LEGO has dropped plans to make its famous bricks out of recycled bottles and anyone genuinely concerned about the environment—or quality toys—should rejoice at the news.

Calling it a “sustainability setback” because apparently they’re idiots, the Financial Times [paywall] revealed LEGO’s decision on Sunday. According to CNN [no paywall because nobody pays for CNN], the Danish toymaker had “spent years testing recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) as a more climate-friendly alternative to the acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)” it usually uses.

A company spokesman told CNN on Monday, “We have decided not to progress making bricks from recycled PET after more than three years of testing as we found the material didn’t reduce carbon emissions.”

Also according to CNN, “making bricks from the recycled material would require investing in new equipment and involve more steps, which would ultimately lead to more planet-heating pollution than the status quo.” The quote was CNN’s summary of what the LEGO spokesman said. I have no idea whether the phrase “planet-heating pollution” was LEGO’s phrase or CNN’s. Either way, lefty assumptions like that one are always being inserted into regular discourse as though they’re established facts, and we need to push back against them.

That said, as a lover of both LEGO and this gorgeous planet we live on, I couldn’t be more thrilled by today’s news.

I spent my childhood playing with LEGO and a good portion of my adulthood buying them for my sons. On occasion — like when the boys wanted bricks based on the Halo first-person shooter video game — I had to buy knockoff brands. There is a quality, a “snap” to LEGO bricks that nobody else has ever quite duplicated. So I wasn’t at all surprised to read that one reason the company has opted not to make their bricks out of old bottles was because “the recycled plastic wasn’t as durable and safe as ABS and didn’t have the material’s ‘clutch power,’ which enables bricks to stick together and be pulled apart easily.”

That’s not to say the world’s endless stream of disposable plastic crap isn’t a problem, because it is. Recycling the stuff isn’t easy, either, because “breaking down plastics can generate polluting microplastics that wind up in water or the air,” according to at least one study. Greenpeace is pretty much against any and everything that makes life better but the organization does have a point when they point out that “the toxicity of plastic actually increases with recycling.”

Asian nations are the worst about properly disposing of the stuff, but even here in the West, we generate a lot more plastic waste than we probably need to.

But LEGO is a terrible example of disposable plastic. In fact, the pointy little bricks are notoriously durable, as anyone with feet can tell you.

I wasn’t able to locate the video on YouTube, but several years ago I came across a very devoted LEGO fan who wanted to demonstrate exactly how durable the bricks really are. So he built a tiny robot arm that had exactly two jobs. Job One was snapping two brand-new bricks together and then unsnapping them again, over and over, until they no longer clicked. Job Two was activating a little LED counter that kept track of each successful snap/unsnap.

Can you guess, on average, how many times LEGO bricks can be used before they fail?

About 30,000 times.

You could have loaded nine-year-old VodkaPundit up on Red Bull and Skittles until my eyeballs were buggier than Marty Feldman’s and I still wouldn’t have enough energy to wear out a single set of LEGO bricks. Long after a nuclear war/zombie apocalypse/COVID-19,517 or whatever wipes out humanity, highly evolved cockroaches will be playing with our leftover LEGOs.

So kudus to our friends in Denmark for refusing to sacrifice the quality of their toys in pursuit of an impossible goal.

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